Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Inspirations - Inferno


The first of two stories to be written by Don Houghton. He knew script editor Terrance Dicks from their time together on the soap Crossroads. Houghton's principal inspiration was a news story he had read, concerning a drilling scheme which was abruptly abandoned. In 1961, Project Mohole was a joint venture between the American Miscellaneous Society (AMSOC) and the National Science Foundation, and they planned to bore down through the Earth's crust into the Mohorovicic Discontinuity. A site was chosen off the Mexican island of Guadalupe, and new technology was developed to allow the drilling ship to automatically maintain its position within a few hundred feet of the bore hole. The sea bed was 11,700 feet below the ship, and the drill went down some 610 feet into the sediments. The oil companies were naturally very interested in this. However, the project was suddenly called off. Officials were reluctant to give any information as to why this had happened, and AMSOC disbanded a couple of years later, which peeked the interest of conspiracy theorists. What had the scientists found that could have caused them to abandon the project after its initial success? Houghton thought that this might be a good idea for a Doctor Who story. (The official explanation for the abandonment did become available later - money).


Working titles included "Operation Mole-Bore" and "The Mo-Hole Project". Dicks quickly realised that there was not enough material to fill seven episodes. The popular late 60's drama The Troubleshooters, about the oil and gas industry, could manage it thanks to bedroom and boardroom tussles, but these wouldn't do for a family science fiction adventure series. Houghton's initial drafts concentrated solely on the disastrous environmental effects of the drilling project as Professor Stahlman obsessively drilled down to find the gas he believed would solve the nation's energy crisis.
It was Dicks who came up with the trip to a parallel Earth, where we would see what would happen if the work went on unchecked.
Alternative histories (also known as counterfactual histories) have been around in fiction for a very long time. There were a number of books which looked at what Britain might have become had the Nazis won the war. This was also the subject of the film It Happened Here, released in 1963. In 1962, Philip K Dick had published The Man in the High Castle, which depicts an America ruled by the Germans in the East, and by Japan in the West. Other examples of counterfactuals have included stories in which the Roman Empire never fell, or where the South won the American Civil War. These proved popular with the makers of Star Trek, who also did an alternative universe story ("Mirror, Mirror"), but that series had yet to be broadcast in the UK at this time, so can't have influenced the Doctor Who production team.


The alternate Earth of Inferno sees Britain not as a country which lost the last war, but one where perhaps the appeasers won out against those who advocated for war against Hitler's ideological and territorial ambitions back in the late 30's. There was a strong Fascist party in the 1930's - epitomised by Oswald Mosley's Blackshirt movement - and we know that a cabal of Conservative politicians and peers plotted a right wing coup. Edward VIII - the King who never was - was known to be sympathetic towards fascist ideals.
The Britain of Inferno is a republic. When he asks about the Royal Family, the Doctor is told that they were shot. UNIT in this world is replaced with the RSF - Republican Security Force. All of the same people associated both with UNIT and with the drilling project just happen to be in exactly the same positions in the parallel world. The Brigadier is the bullying Brigade Leader (supposedly based on Mussolini), Liz is Section Leader Shaw, and Benton is a Platoon Under-Leader.  Stahlman (here Stahlmann) is still leading the project, with Petra Williams at his side. Sir Keith Gold is the ministry man in both versions - though there should be no such thing as a knighthood in the parallel Britain. Drilling expert Greg Sutton is a political prisoner attached to the project here, whilst in our reality he has simply been drafted in to give Sir Keith someone who can explain things to him, and is tolerated by the professor at best.
The one person who does not have a doppelganger is the Doctor himself - suggesting he exists in our universe alone. It won't be until 2008 that an alternative Doctor takes up residence in an alternative universe - the half human one who settles down with Rose.


We haven't mentioned the Primords so far. That's because Houghton didn't mention them either in the beginning. They were added to the story later, to give viewers a monster and to make the seven episodes more interesting and exciting. The name - deriving from "primordial" - are named only in the closing credits for parts five and six, and are never named this on screen.
We mentioned Arthur Conan Doyle's second most famous character creation when looking at The Silurians a couple of weeks ago, citing The Lost World as one of that story's inspirations. Professor Challenger features in another story which is very much an inspiration for Inferno - When the World Screamed. You'll recall that the Doctor claims that if the green liquid were not sealed in its jar it would scream, and he refers to the noise coming from the bore hole as the planet screaming out its rage. This short story was published in 1928, and it features Challenger's attempt to drill down to the mantle in order to prove his theory that the Earth is one giant living organism. His theory is proved correct and the creature is awakened. It shoots out a nasty liquid - just like that mutagenic green slime here.
1965 saw the release of a disaster movie called The Crack in the World, starring Dana Andrews as an obsessive, driven geologist who fails to heed the warnings of his younger colleague. A project to fire an atomic rocket into a bore hole in central Africa, to allow the exploitation of geothermal energy, causes a crack to start splitting the whole planet in two. A second nuclear explosion diverts the crack back towards its source, and the film ends with a huge chunk of Tanganyika being blown into space to become a second Moon. The younger scientist gets the project leader's wife at the end, just as Sutton gets Stahlman's assistant here.


Inferno enjoys a very high reputation amongst fans. Jon Pertwee chose the final episode for inclusion on The Pertwee Years VHS release, and Nicholas Courtney always claimed it was his favourite story. (Courtney's eye-patch story inspired Steven Moffat to have the whole cast wear eye-patch-like eye-drives in The Wedding of River Song, by way of a tribute to Courtney). For DWM's 50th Anniversary poll it was the highest rated Pertwee story, coming in at No.18 overall.
Personally, I do like it but don't rank it that highly. Once the Earth has been destroyed at the conclusion of Episode 6, the final part can be a bit of an anti-climax, as characters repeat things which we saw their alternative selves do a couple of episodes ago, and the Doctor wakes up and hurriedly puts a stop to things.


The making of the story was far from trouble free. The biggest problem was that director Douglas Camfield fell seriously ill after completing the location filming and was part way through the first studio recording block. He had a heart condition. As an experienced director, producer Barry Letts stepped in and completed the block to Camfield's plans. He then had to devise his own plans for the remaining blocks. Camfield's condition was kept quiet, as no-one would have employed him again on insurance grounds. His wife - Sheila Dunn, whom he cast as Petra - forbade him from dong another Doctor Who for several years due to the stress it put him under. The original choice for Miss Williams had actually been Kate O'Mara, but a more attractive job offer from Hammer came along.
Camfield was also permitted to retain the credit for the whole story.
More trouble befell stunt man Alan Chuntz, as he was badly injured in the leg when he failed to jump out of Bessie's way in time. Pertwee was driving, and was incredibly upset by the accident. Another stunt man - Derek Martin - had a joke played on him when his HAVOC team mates swapped his brand new car for a duplicate which they arranged to be smashed up in a faked accident.
The fall from the gasometer by Roy Scammell was the highest ever performed by a stunt man for many years. The character who falls is supposed to be UNIT Private Wyatt, played by Derek Ware, and it is actually Scammell who plays the soldier who shoots him.


One final inspiration before we go has to be yet another mention for the Quatermass serials. We have already pointed out elements from Quatermass II finding their way into Spearhead from Space. The refinery setting here is very reminiscent of scenes from the same serial. The Professor manages to wangle an invite to the Winnerdon Flats complex in the third episode along with the secretive company's PR man Rupert Ward. Ward goes off to investigate one of the chemical tanks by himself, and we see him staggering down a staircase covered in corrosive slime, having fallen into the contents. Scenes with the scientist Bromley and with Private Wyatt look to have been inspired by this.
Inferno proved to be the swan-song for Caroline John as Liz Shaw. Letts had inherited the character and felt that having two know-it-all scientists was a bad combination. The assistant should be younger and, well, dimmer - to ask more questions on behalf of the audience. As it was John was about to resign anyway, as she was pregnant. Letts preempted her, and for many years she thought that she had been gotten rid of because she hadn't been very good. This put her off attending conventions. Sadly, she departs without any kind of farewell scene. This has led some fans to prefer watching this story swapped with the preceding one, where the Doctor sort of hands Liz over to Ralph Cornish at the conclusion.
Next time: Barry Letts finally gets to start making the series the way he wants it, and some significant new characters arrive. The Brigadier gets fatigued, and the Doctor gets a new assistant, as well as a masterful arch enemy...

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